Resistance

I learned something this morning, something you probably already knew. I didn’t. I bought a new LG smart phone, turned it on, and there it was, this new (to me) fact: beneath the LG logo are two words: “Life’s Good.” I did not know that LG stood for “Life’s Good.” In addition to all the other magical things this little device does, it makes a very basic religious, philosophical, existential statement. Turn it on, listen to a short delightful musical prelude, know: LG – Life’s Good.

I needed the reminder. I woke up with a headache. My body felt soggy. My arms and legs were struggling to wake up. I fixed my coffee, opened my newspaper, skimmed the headlines. Things had not changed much since yesterday. Angry violent people continue to drag the rest of us into larger cycles of violence. The plight of refugees continues. A congressman reports a dream of rising terrorism and burning American cities. Another child is shot while sitting on a porch playing. My heart aches. My conscience is tweaked. I am frustrated; I know I can do so very little about any of it. In addition, I was scheduled for a root canal in the afternoon. So it was good to get a reminder: LG – Life’s Good!

Sometimes it takes an act of the will and all the strength of a deep conviction to claim, assert, embrace, even fight for this: Life is Good! This day, this moment, these bodies, this air, just being here: a miracle.

Think about it. I read recently that it takes 5,000 years for light to travel from the center of the sun to its surface. Only then does it flare out into the solar system, striking the surface of planets, including our earth. Our very lives are contingent upon light that began its trek toward our planet 5,000 years ago. It takes a universe to support a life.

Somehow everything came together, comes together, consistently, reliably, so that we are here. This day: a miracle. Me with a toothache, drinking coffee, grumbling about the news, wondering if getting up today is worth the trouble. You, reading this page.

I think the most basic religious quest is to reclaim, to embody this aspect of reality: life is good. The goal and practice of good religion is not to diminish our experience of life, to fill us with guilt, anxiety, or dread, but to enhance our lives, to enlarge them! To set us free from the distortions we tend to impose upon life, the harm we do to each other. In Christian language, it is the work of redemption.

One of my favorite Gospel stories is the healing of the Gerasene demonic in Mark 5. A man who is naked, who lives his life howling, sleeping in tombs, cutting himself with rocks, terrifying his neighbors, runs up to Jesus. Jesus heals him. When the people of the town hear about it, they run out to see what happened. What they see is the man, who had been possessed by legions, sitting near Jesus, “clothed and in his right mind.” (Mark 5:15) Jesus has redeemed him, set him free from all that had distorted his life. Jesus restored the goodness of his life. Jesus sends him home to live well with his family, within his village. His life is meant to be good. Jesus made it so.

Why do I go to church? Because here it is (or at least, at its best should be),  that I remember that life is a sacred gift. Not because it is an opportunity to produce something more than what it is, or different than it is. But before anything else to affirm, grasp, breathe in this basic reality: Life is good, holy, of God. 

And this day it helps that my phone reminds me: LG – Life is Good. Let us resist everything that would tell us otherwise. Let’s claim its goodness. The act of doing so is a moral imperative. For those of us who are religious: doing so honors the God of life.

Strawberry Jam

 

A Confession (1985) by Czeslaw Milosz

My Lord, I loved strawberry jam

And the dark sweetness of a woman’s body.

Also well-chilled vodka, herring in olive oil,

Scents, of cinnamon, of cloves.

So what kind of prophet am I? Why should the spirit

Have visited such a man?

Nothing like stating the obvious: creation came to be not by accident, but by intention.

Read Gen. 1:31. It does not say that God saw everything that God had made and said “oops”, or “Oh no!” Rather it reads: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (NRSV)

We seem to forget that the bible begins with Gen. 1 and not with Gen. 3. The overarching biblical plot is not that of an angry God whose desire is to curse and to destroy, who must be appeased, but of a creative God of blessing, whose intention is that all life should flourish.

Thomas Merton wrote somewhere that the cow grazing in a field under a tree praises God perfectly, by simply being there.

The material world, this embodied life is not a mistake. It s a gift. It is not meant to be endured and suffered, but to be lived, to be celebrated.The spiritual life is not an escape from this life, but a deeper embrace of it.

That’s why I so love Czeslaw Milosz’s A Confession. Maybe only a person who loves the taste of strawberry jam can be a prophet.

Maybe only the person who shares God’s love for this created world will be moved enough to protest our violence, our readiness to destroy and kill, our careless abuse of the earth.

Recovering the Inner Life – 2

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“Be the change you want to see in the world” – Mohandas Gandhi

Gandhi’s statement speaks more truth than we often realize.   He speaks a basic and often unrecognized principle:  when we change ourselves, in a very real way we change the world around us.

It follows that if we want to change the world around us, we need to look first within ourselves; there is where change begins. If we want a kinder world, we start by being kind. If we want a more peaceful world, we start by becoming more peaceable. If we want less racism in the world, we need to confront the racism resident in ourselves. As we change, we become agents of change.

To experience this try a simple experiment: commit to a full day of practicing random acts of kindness. Smile at strangers. Say hello to people you usually walk by. Hold doors open for people. Treat somebody to lunch. Let someone get ahead of you in line.  Then the next day commit to random acts of unkindness. Don’t smile. Scowl a bit. Complain to whoever will listen. Let the door close on the person behind you. Complain to strangers about how slow the line is moving, and how poorly the cashier is at his or her job. Get angry at the stupidity of other drivers. Notice what happens and how you feel each day. Notice how people react to you and around you. I am very willing to bet your experience on those two days will be very different. The world around you will be different.

Richard Rohr, a writer on Christian spirituality, addresses this in his book The Naked Now. He writes about this approach to change: “We mend and renew the world by strengthening inside ourselves what we seek outside ourselves, and not by demanding it of others or trying to force it on others.”

He also provides some examples of what that might involve:

* If you want others to be more loving, choose to love first.

* If you want a reconciled outer world, reconcile your inner world.

* If you are working for peace out there, create it inside as well.

* If you notice other people’s irritability, let go of your own.

* If you wish to find some outer stillness, find it within yourself.

* If you find yourself resenting the faults of others, stop resenting your own.

* If you want a more just world, start by being just in small ways yourself.

* If your situation feels hopeless, honor the one spot of hope inside you.

* If you want to find God, then honor God within you, and you will see God beyond you.

(Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, Crossroad Publishing, 2009. 160-1.)

Jesus taught the same lesson to his disciples, and to all who follow him in every age:

“Forgive, and you will be forgiven; give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be put into your lap; for the measure you give will be the measure you get back…. The good person out of the good treasure of the heart produces good, and the evil person out of evil treasure produces evil; for it is out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks” – Jesus, Luke 6:37, 38, 45

What we give out somehow manages to return. He taught that those who are merciful, practice kindness, extend compassion, live generous lives, who do not find it necessary to strike back, who bless and do not curse, will both reflect the nature of God into the world, and even though they will experience difficulties, will ultimately discover that what they have given to others will be poured back to them.  He taught that we act out of the condition of our hearts, and called on us to have the kind of heart that reflects the very love of God.

What does all of this mean? I think it means that our inner lives, our character, the state of our souls, the well being of our spirits, are tremendously important. It shapes our lives and our experience. It makes a major difference to those around us. It makes a tremendous difference to the character of our communities. Angry, spiritually immature, reactive people will create unhealthy and unhappy families and communities. In the same way healthy, mature, gracious people generate healthier places to live.

We give such extraordinary attention to the things around us, how much we earn, what kind of cars we purchase, what kind of smart phone we use, where we go on vacation. Are we willing to give that kind of attention to what lies within us? To becoming better, wiser, more mature people?

If we want to lead happier lives, or to live in a more loving family or community, we need to nurture the capacity for happiness and for love within us. It really is that direct.

Gandhi is right. If we want to change the world, we do need to become the change we want to see.

Pastor Bill

Recovering the Inner Life

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“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”  – Paul, Romans 12:2

Awhile ago  Dr. Phil broadcast a show on the prevalence of cheating in our school systems and beyond. I was fascinated by his conversation with one young woman who was very open and clearly pained by her own cheating. Why did she do it? No new revelations: she felt enormous pressure to achieve a high standing in her class and all the awards that were signs of success (straight A’s, Honor Society, varsity letters, class president, etc. etc.) Those things defined success for her. They defined her as a worthy or an unworthy person. Achieving those markers had become more important to her than her character, or real learning. So she cheated to gain an edge, to get what she believed she needed.

Her self image, her self esteem, had become defined by these things which have very little to do with who she is. She defined herself by things outside of herself, and in comparison to others. She looked very successful, but in fact was very unhappy.

The truth is that she is far from alone. Studies show that most people cheat in business, sports, etc. as adults also cheated in High School. Cheating is more common and on the rise. The reasons are essentially the same: the thing I believe I need has become more important to me than character, integrity, or the quality of what I am doing.

I write this, not to rant on cheating or cheaters, but to notice one sign that our culture tends to be very externally directed, defining life and what is good, by things that we get or have. It tends to let go of the important world of our inner lives. Even though we know better, at some level we come to believe that happiness, success, etc. is more about what we have and less about who we are.

So, people are driven to get the newest gadget, the next car, the next promotion, to go on the next more exotic vacation. People, even cultures, become rich in things, as Jesus taught, and impoverished in spirit. That we become angry, reactive, and aggressive, even violent, is no surprise. That developing deep, life long committed relationships is very difficult, is no surprise. That addiction is epidemic is no surprise.

The apostle Paul, like every great spiritual teacher, points in a different direction: who we are is enormously more important than what we have. Happiness is an inner capacity, not an external achievement. Paul writes very clearly that we are not to be conformed to the patterns around us, but are to be transformed, renewed in mind and spirit. We are to let the Spirit work on us and in us, to renew our inner lives, our minds and hearts. That renewal will transform us, so that we can then know what is good, and experience life as God would have it for us.

The key that opens this lock is not outside of us, but inside of us. The things that lead to deep and joyful life are things like compassion, generosity, a peaceable spirit, personal integrity, the capacity to forgive, the capacity to love.

Spiritual teachers speak about the value of having less, and not getting addicted to the need for more, the beauty of the ordinary, the power of serving others. Spiritual teachers speak about the infinite value of who we are before God, and the relative unimportance of what we have, or how we might impress our neighbors.

As we enter this new year, what will you do that will focus on your spiritual growth and maturity? What will you do that will open your spirit to the very Spirit of God? Will you be conformed to the culture that would have you get more, newer, bigger, faster things? Will you listen to Paul who advises us to take a different path?

I think Emerson said it best: “What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us. “

Pastor Bill

(Source of Emerson quote: http://www.quotationspage.com/quote/2160.html)

Work for Peace

9.11

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In truth, I struggle each year as Sept. 11 approaches. The day begs that something be done to remember and to respond to the evil and tragic violence acted out almost ten years ago. The question is how do we do that and do it well? What do we do?

Clearly the day has special significance for those who lost loved ones, friends, and neighbors that day. Our hearts go out to them, and our prayers.

That day violence was no respecter of persons. People of many religions and none, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindu, agnostics and atheists, people from many nations and cultures, all died because of this act of hatred and terrorism. And the circle of violence expands. We all were wounded.

I am convinced that the best way to honor this day is to stand as clearly as I can against all forms of terrorism and everything that feeds it: fear, pride, intolerance, racism, repression, enmity, hatred, and violence itself. I am also convinced that the place in which I must first take this stand is in me.

Kierkegaard concludes his wonderful book The Works of Love by observing that the place where the battle for love is most difficult and must be fought with intensity is in our hearts. It is not in the world where the battle line is drawn: it is drawn in us. We become people who love, or we will never love as we should.

He is not arguing for a passive stance in the world until we reach some inward spiritual perfection, but rather he is observing that the root of hate, violence, and indifference is in us. And there we must fight for love.

The same is true if we are to be people of peace. We must do the things that are necessary in our communities. But we cannot neglect the inward, inner, spiritual work. The way to fight terrorism is to work for peace. To work for peace we must become people of peace. What Mahatma Gandhi once said remains true: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

I have no great wisdom of my own, so I share with you a few words on peace that come to mind as I remember Sept. 11. I hope they touch and challenge you as they do me.

From the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

“I’ve decided that I’m going to do battle for my philosophy. You ought to believe in something in life, believe that thing so fervently that you will stand up with it till the end of your days. I can’t make myself believe that God wants me to hate. I’m tired of violence. And I’m not going to let my oppressor dictate to me what method I must use. We have a power, power that can’t be found in Molotov cocktails, but we do have a power. Power that cannot be found in bullets and guns, but we have a power. It is a power as old as the insights of Jesus of Nazareth and as modern as the techniques of Mahatma Gandhi.”

“I’m convinced that if we succumb to the temptation to use violence in our struggle for freedom, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to them will be a never ending reign of chaos.”

“Hatred and bitterness can never cure the disease of fear; only love can do that. Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illumines it.”

(Coretta Scott King, The Words of Martin Luther King Jr., Newmarket Press, 1987, 71, 90)

From Thomas Merton:

“Only love, which means humility, can exorcise the fear that is at the root of all war.”

“Instead of loving what you think is peace, love other men, and love God above all. And instead of hating the people you think are warmongers, hate the appetites and the disorder in your own soul, which are the causes of war. If you love peace, then hate injustice, hate tyranny, hate greed – but hate these things in yourself, not in another.”

(Thomas Merton, Passion for Peace: Reflections on War and Nonviolence, Crossroads, 1995, 34, 38)

Thich Nhat Hanh:

“Aware of the sufferings caused by the destruction of life, I am committed to cultivating compassion and learning the ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals. I am determined not to kill, and not to support any act of killing in the world.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by exploitation , social injustice, stealing, and oppression, I am committed to cultivating loving-kindness  and learning ways to work for the well being of (all life)…I will prevent others from profiting from human suffering or the suffering of the other species of the planet.”

“Aware of the suffering caused by unmindful speech and the inability to listen to others, I am committed to cultivating loving speech and deep listening in order to bring joy and happiness to others, and to relieve others of their suffering.”

(Thich Nhat Hanh, The World We Have: A Buddhist Approach to Peace and Ecology, Parallax Press, 2008, chapter 2.)

Jesus of Nazareth: “Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called children of God.”  Matt. 5:9

How might we honor this day? Let us remember and pray for all who lost their lives that day, and in the wars that followed. Let us pray and work for the end to the senseless violence and acts of terrorism.  Let struggle against everything that feeds such violence in others, and especially in ourselves.

Miroslav Volf, who lived through the ethnic violence in Serbia, writes: “A more difficult question remains: what resources will help us resist the temptation of violence.”   (Miroslav Volf, Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation, Abingdon Press, 1996, 249.)

It is a question each of us must answer.

Albert Schweitzer wrote in a letter to Norman Cousins: “I decided I would make my life my argument. I would advocate the things I believed in, in terms of the life I lived and what I did.” (Howard E. Robles, compiler, Reverence for Life: the Words of Albert Schweitzer, HarperSanFrancisco, 1993, 41)

How might we best honor the day? By deciding like Schweitzer, that we will make our lives an argument for peace.

Pastor Bill

A Letter from The United Methodist Bishops on 9/11: http://www.gnjumc.org/fileadmin/news_events/letter_from_bishop_archives/Statement_September_11_2010__2_.pdf

To access the letter: copy and paste the address in your browser.

Experiencing God – Burning Bushes

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I still remember seeing Charlton Heston play Moses in The Ten Commandments for the first time. I was ten years old. The scene that captured my heart occurred early in the movie. Moses is tending his sheep near a mountain. He sees a bush glowing with fire, but not being consumed by it. Curious, he walks closer to get a better look. Then he hears a deep melodic voice, the voice of God: “Remove your sandals from your feet for the place upon which you are standing is holy ground.” (Ex. 3:5) Suddenly he is in the very presence of the Holy One of Israel. He removes his sandals, comes forward and kneels before God. That scene fixed itself in my heart and imagination. It excited me. It still does.

Faith clearly is to be expressed in how we live. Ethics is central to any religious system. I love the study of Christian ethics. However, deeper than the ethical expression of our faith is the mystical experience of God. Somehow we experience the reality of God. Somehow we know we have been in the presence of the Holy One. The experience may be gentle or overwhelming. I might be overcome by it in the present moment, or only remember it, looking back at some experience. But it is real. Like Moses, we know we have stood, if only for a moment, on holy ground.

I remember a few experiences in which I was suddenly aware that I was in the presence of the sacred.  I was fifteen and standing at night under the stars at Sunfish Pond. It is a small glacier lake set on the Appalachian Trail above the Delaware Water Gap. The sky was filled with stars and the stars were reflected in the Pond. Suddenly I became aware of another presence. Not separate from me, but somehow filling everything, or perhaps more accurately, everything was alive with this presence. I did not hear a deep melodic voice nor see a burning bush, but I clearly felt words: “All of this is mine. You are mine. Never be afraid. All belongs to me. You belong to me. Be at peace”

I have only had a few experiences like that. Mostly I do not. But those experiences have changed me. Even in my many years as a radical secular humanist determined to deny God and to rid the world of hunger, my experience at Sunfish Pond stayed with me, reminding me that there is more to life than I could see or touch.

I also know that this is not a unique experience. Most people I have talked to have had similar experiences. They may name it differently, claim it differently, but they are aware of moments when they were in touch with something larger, beautiful, even holy.

I like what Rabbi Lawrence Kushner says about this. He says that burning bushes, entrances to the holy, are all around us:  “You do not have to go anywhere to raise yourself. You do not have to become anyone other than yourself to find entrances. You have already been there. You are already everything you need to be. Entrances are everywhere and all the time.” (Lawrence Kushner, Eyes Remade for Wonder: A Lawrence Kushner Reader, Jewish Light Publishing, 1998. 18)

God is not out there and beyond, but is closer to us than our breathing. What happens is that sometimes we wake up. I think that the difference between us ordinary people and the great saints, is that they live much more open to the sacred than we are able to manage. The whole world for them is a burning bush. But when we do wake up, everything changes. Everything is somehow different.

The ethical flows out of the mystical. We do not try to be good. That never works well. Rather we try to live consistent with our experience of God. For me, as a Christian, the fullness of God is found in Christ. The path that I try to walk (laughingly inadequately) is the one I find through him. The path he sets is one of sacrificial love of neighbor and even the enemy.

St. Augustine is said to have asked the question, if God is everywhere, how do we get closer to God? His answer: when we love! Real encounters with God do not call us out of the world, but deeper into it. Faith does not lift us above the struggles of the world, but challenges us to enter into them, even to embrace the suffering of others; there is where the love of God would take us. There is where love most desperately needs to be expressed.

Remember Charlton Heston and the Ten Commandments. From the burning bush, Moses is sent to confront Pharaoh, and to redeem the people of Israel from the slave houses of Egypt.

Part of the mystical experience is a desire to somehow offer ourselves to God. Having tasted something of the goodness of God, there is a natural desire to drink more deeply from the cup of God’s beauty. We may fear the urge, resist the desire, but in our better moments, we know it is there.

St. Ignatius of Loyola expressed this desire in one of his most powerful prayers:

Take, O Lord, and receive my entire liberty,

my memory, my understanding and my whole will ill.

All that I am and all that I possess you have given me.

I surrender it all to you to be disposed of according to Your will.

Give me only Your love and Your grace;

with these I will be rich enough, and will desire nothing more.

(http://www.next-wave.org/apr99/Ignatius-prayer.htm)

One of the great paradoxes of faith, is that when I surrender myself to God I discover that I am enlarged, not diminished. I become more fully myself, not less. As Jesus taught, when we lose ourselves in love of God and as servants of God’s love in this world, we finally find ourselves.

I don’t know why that is true, only that when I am at my best and able to do that (unfortunately, not too often) I discover that it is true.

Then I remember Charlton Heston at the burning bush. Once more I am ten years old and in awe before the Holy.

Prayer of St. Francis

St. Francis of Assisi

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It seems fear of the stranger and justification for it are all around us. The Christian Gospel calls for something else. St. Francis understood this  Here is a prayer attributed to him. May it be our prayer:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is darkness, light;

where there is sadness, joy.

.

O Divine Master,

grant that I my not so much seek

to be consoled as to console,

to be understood, as to understand;

to be loved, as to love;

for it is in giving that we receive,

it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,

and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life

(United Methodist Hymnal # 481)

When others allow fear of the stranger to gain a foothold in their spirits, and anger directed at others to define them, let us not forget who we are and to whom we belong.